Pakistan’s religious minorities suffer under blasphemy laws

Blasphemy law

Aasia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of five children from Pakistan, is facing execution for her religious beliefs. Despite international outcry over her sentence, Aasia remains in an isolation cell in a jail in Punjab, a state in the northwest of Pakistan.

Bibi’s story began in June, 2009, when she was living in the tiny village of Ittanwali, in northeast Pakistan. According to some reports Bibi’s family were the only Christians in the area, where she was working at the time as a farm labourer.

While at work one day she was asked by a village elder to fetch some drinking water for her co-workers. But some of the farm workers reportedly refused to drink the water, saying it was sacrilegious and unclean to accept water from her, as a non-Muslim. Bibi took offence, reminding the others that they were all human, and an argument erupted.

Her co-workers complained to local Muslim cleric Qari Salim that Bibi had made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad and the cleric informed police, who arrested Bibi on blasphemy charges.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were introduced in the 1980s. Though they were supposed to be used to protect the religious sensitivities of the country’s Muslim majority, in practice they are often used to persecute religious minorities.

In 2009 almost 100 people were charged with blasphemy, including 67 Ahmadi Muslims and 17 Christians.

Many of those accused or suspected of blasphemy have been assaulted or tortured. Some people detained in prisons on blasphemy charges have been killed by fellow inmates or prison wardens. Others suspected of blasphemy, but not under arrest, have been unlawfully killed without the police taking any action to protect them.

Last July two Christian brothers, Rashid and Sajid Emanuel, were shot dead outside the court in Faisalabad after they had been charged with blasphemy.

Attacks on religious minorities have been a feature of Pakistan in recent years, with Christians and Ahmadi Muslims being targeted in particular.

One of the worst incidents occurred in August 2009 in the village of Gorja when a mob attacked the Christian quarter. At least six Christians were burned to death, including a seven-year-old child. Of the 42 people arrested on charges relating to the attacks, 35 have been released on bail.

In March Pakistan’s minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti – the only Christian cabinet member – was assassinated after being ambushed on the way to work. He had been a prominent supporter of Bibi and she told her lawyer that she felt he had “paid with his life” for speaking out in her defence.

He was not the first of her supporters to be killed. In January Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was killed by his own bodyguard after publicly calling for Bibi’s release.

With her allies in Pakistan living in fear and with Bibi under threat of execution, we urgently need your help.

Please act now to support our call to Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari to commute the death sentence, as he is permitted to do under the constitution and to immediately release Bibi.

The authorities must also act to ensure her family is protected from extremists who may attempt to target them.

You can write to her excellency, Naghmana A Hashmi, ambassador of Pakistan, embassy of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 1 – B Ailesbury Villa, Ailesbury Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4.

Alternatively, log on to amnesty.ie and take action online.

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